Over the last two years – under the guise of a Covid-19 communications strategy – the British people have faced a psychologic bombardment from their own government.
Who can forget the constant images during the pandemic warning people to stay indoors to ‘save lives’, students being told that breaking the rules would be ‘killing their granny’, or the ‘Look him in the eyes’ campaign, which showed Covid patients in hospital wearing an oxygen mask, imploring people to never bend the rules and to keep a ‘safe distance’ from others. Even now, as the number of Covid cases continues to fall, we are surrounded by billboards showing black Covid particles hanging in the air like smoke, enveloping people going about their everyday lives.
The consequences of this unprecedented state-sanctioned campaign have been visible everywhere: from the old lady in the street, paralysed with fear of contamination from another human, darting into the road to avoid someone walking the other way, to the neighbour donning a face covering and plastic gloves to wheel the dustbin to the end of her drive. These kinds of incidents are the product of an intensive messaging campaign, designed by the government’s behavioural scientists, to ‘nudge’ us into compliance with the Covid-19 restrictions and the subsequent vaccine rollout.
The deployment of behavioural science as a means of inducing people to adopt what the state deems to be the ‘right’ actions gained impetus with the advent of the ‘Behavioural Insight Team’ (BIT) in 2010. From humble beginnings as a seven-person unit working with the UK government, the BIT has rapidly expanded to become a ‘social purpose company’ operating in many countries across the world.
The consequences of this unprecedented state-sanctioned campaign has been visible everywhere
Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, several BIT members – along with other psychologists with ‘nudging’ expertise – have been an integral part of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviour (SPI-B), a Sage subgroup tasked with advising government about how to maximise the impact of its pandemic communications strategy. Behavioural science expertise is also deployed across many other areas of government.